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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, will the Minister look again at one part of her otherwise very satisfactory reply: that which relates to young people between the ages of 16 and 18 being engaged in combat? She will be aware that the United Nations is making great efforts to bring about an international agreement that no young person under the age of 18 will be put into combat. In particular, I am thinking of the dreadful civil wars raging in Africa. Will she consider again whether the United Kingdom might help to give a lead in this matter, which might then be followed by many other countries?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware of the discussions taking place in the United Nations. My answer to the noble Baroness is that the real point of worry is the use of very much younger child soldiers in conscript armies. I do not believe that there is a comparison between some of the child conscripts that we have seen, for example, in Sierra Leone or Uganda where children as young as 12 are forced into conscript armies, and the way that the United Kingdom Armed Forces operate. Of course, the noble Baroness will know that there has been
Lord Gisborough: My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that many of us approve of the proposal to allow young offenders to volunteer? Does she agree that they would benefit greatly from the discipline and organisation which they would encounter?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am very pleased to hear such an unequivocal endorsement of the Government's position on this matter. In that way, the noble Lord distinguishes himself from some of his colleagues in another place who have been a little less than welcoming of the initiative. It is important to remember that the young people concerned will be those who have received short sentences and have not been found guilty of racial crimes, crimes of sexual abuse or child abuse. It is right and appropriate that those young people are offered a second chance.
Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, I accept the comments of my noble friend. There is a real difference between deploying child labour in the Armed Forces in some countries of the world and our use of 17 year-olds. Nevertheless, is she not aware and has the Question not demonstrated that our deploying 17 year-olds in armed conflict is a controversial subject? When the United Nations protocols are reviewed in January, will she bear in mind the very real concern about the use of 17 year-olds in this situation?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am well aware of the controversial nature of these points. Perhaps I should say to my noble friend that we have canvassed the views of the senior officers in the Armed Forces. It is their view that not to deploy trained 17 year-olds might well cause difficulties for deployment of the Armed Forces in certain circumstances.
In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, I made clear that this issue will be discussed again. A working party in the Ministry of Defence is discussing recruitment and employment of under 18 year-olds. The MoD is, therefore, already considering the issue. In January, discussions will be re-opened on the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I undertake to bear in mind not only the points raised by the noble Baroness but those made by a number of other organisations to the MoD on this matter.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I refer to the announcement concerning recruitment in prisons. Presumably only those who have committed minor crimes would be approached. Is not service in a cadet force before someone reaches mid-teenage most likely to reduce later lapses into crime?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point. It is also worth noting that at present a little over 40 per cent of all Army recruits are aged under 18 years. The statistic
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the financial arrangements for ongoing operations in Kosovo and East Timor are not expected to affect the training, equipment programmes or morale of the Armed Forces. It has been agreed with Treasury colleagues that the reserve will cover the net additional costs of operations in Kosovo where the MoD cannot accommodate them without detriment to other commitments. Final decisions on the handling of the costs of East Timor operations have not yet been taken.
The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Was it not the case that the costs of the Gulf War and, indeed, the South Atlantic campaign were met in full from the Consolidated Fund? Will she make urgent representations to the Treasury that all the costs of the East Timor and the Kosovo campaigns are met out of that fund rather than from the grossly overstretched defence budget?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that I have given the noble Earl the reassurances he sought. The reserve will cover the costs of the operations in Kosovo where the MoD cannot accommodate them without detriment to the important points raised by the noble Earl; that is, recruitment, training, equipment programmes or morale in the Armed Forces. The question of East Timor, where costs are very much lower and the action is of recent history, is still under discussion with the Treasury. On the one hand we are talking about costs of some £100 million in relation to Kosovo; on the other, as far as concerns East Timor, we are talking about £7.5 million. However, I hope that the noble Lord is reassured by my comments on the Treasury reserve fund.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have said that the British forces were going in for a limited period. As far as I am aware, there has been no review of such a period. If the position changes, I am sure that my right honourable friend Mr Hoon will make an announcement accordingly. However, until he does so, I believe we can rest on the position which was announced at the time that the Gurkhas went into East Timor. There has been no change as yet.
Lord Bramall: The noble Earl speaks with passion, from the heart and without notes; all attributes that this House can ill afford to lose. I wish I could share the Minister's complacency about the defence vote when her Ministry is struggling desperately to correct manifest ills of undermanning and overstretch, and to enhance the confidence and commitment of those who serve. Does the Minister not accept that any additional burden such as this, accentuated ceaselessly by the arbitrary Treasury cuts of 3 per cent compound interest per annum presented on the palpably spurious grounds of efficiency savings, means in practice that all major votes on equipment, accommodation and training are now being seriously cut back and eroded?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree warmly with the comments of the noble and gallant Lord in respect of the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle. We shall all miss his contributions, not only on defence matters. I think I can safely say that no one in your Lordships' House can rival the noble Earl's expertise on the Baltic states. That will be sorely missed by all of us, especially those who have answered his Questions on the subject.
Having said that, I disagree profoundly with the comments of the noble and gallant Lord regarding the MoD. There is absolutely no complacency in the MoD about our running costs. Perhaps I may remind him that we have attempted to deal with the question of overstretch, for example, by the withdrawal of troops at the height of our operations in Kosovo this year. We contributed 37.4 per cent of NATO's troops. We are now down to a contribution of 10.1 per cent. Far from retrenching on questions of training and morale, the MoD is investing more in such aspects, particularly on service morale. I refer, for instance, to more telephone calls for the families, introducing guaranteed periods of post-operational tour leave and a whole range of issues. The MoD is not retrenching but meeting these issues with considerable confidence.
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